General principles of giving and receiving feedback

Feedback helps us become more aware of what we do and how we do it. Receiving it gives us an opportunity to change and modify in order to become more effective communicators.

To be helpful, feedback needs to be given in a concerned and supportive way and to include both positive and negative observations.

Giving and receiving feedback is a skill.

Listed below are ten helpful rules.

  1. Offer feedback on observed behaviour, not on what you think he or she was thinking or intending ; “You were clenching your fist so tightly that your knuckles went white” rather than “You were very aggressive”.
  2. Offer a description of what you saw and how you felt, rather than a judgment; “When you started to shout, I felt upset” rather than “It wasn’t a good idea to raise your voice”.
  3. Focus on behaviour which can be changed. It is not helpful to tell someone with a speech impediment that their impediment is annoying. A persistent drumming on the table or tapping of the foot, however, can be eliminated and so could be commented on.
  4. Choose which aspects are most important and limit yourself to those. Nobody can concentrate on changing everything at once. Set priorities mentally before you give feedback and concentrate on the first few items on the list.
  5. Ask questions rather than make statements. That approach both allows individuals the responsibility of reaching their own conclusions and forces them to think about the issues. “How else could you have reacted when…?” rather than “You should have…!”
  6. Set the ground rules in advance. Tell people by what criteria they are to be judged.
  7. Comment on the things that an individual did well, as well as areas for improvement. It is important that people feel empowered by the process if they are to work positively at improving their performance. If the experience leaves them feeling inadequate or humiliated, it will have been counterproductive. It is particularly important that praise is sincere and given about very specific items of behaviour.
  8. Relate all your feedback to specific items of behaviour: don’t waffle about general feelings or impressions. “I liked it when you went to the door to let him in” rather than “There was a very friendly atmosphere”. In that way, somebody can learn from it and do it again. You cannot “do” a friendly atmosphere again, but you can go to the door and let somebody in.
  9. Observe everyone’s personal limits. If you offer too much feedback at once, the shutters will go on in the persons face. From just before that moment onward, you will be counteracting any help that you have given.
  10. Before offering any feedback consider its value for the receiver. If there is none, keep quiet.

But…. Break any of the commandments of feedback, providing that you understand the rule and its purpose and that what you propose to do is going to achieve your ends more efficiently, with due regard to the individual.

In summary feedback should focus on:

  • The behaviour rather than the person
  • What s/he does rather than what we imagine s/he is – use adverbs which relate to actions rather than adjectives which relate to qualities
  • Observations rather than judgement: what is said or done, not why (our assumptions)
  • Description rather than judgement
  • Being specific rather than generalising
  • Sharing ideas and information rather than giving advice
  • Personalised: ‘I felt, I thought…’
  • The amount of information the receiver can use rather than the amount we would like to give
  • Behaviour the receiver can do something about

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